In Which Ella Returns

There are some points in life when you give up on something you usually love. Sometimes that point is the summer before your freshman year of college, sometimes that thing is writing, and sometimes the person doing all of that is me.

I had reached this point where I felt like I had things to say, but the words I had weren’t good enough to say them.

And that’s okay.

I won’t always be able to say everything I want and sometimes I won’t even feel willing.

But that was this summer and this is this fall, and things change. I’m ready to write again.

This won’t be the Eleanor Called Ella of 2011 or early 2012. I will only be posting when I want to and not out of a need for a heavily regulated schedule.

I did a lot of growing up in the last six months, and the person I am now doesn’t need or want a daily blogging schedule. I don’t want to write sub par posts just to fulfill a quota. Writing will be posted here when I feel it is ready to be shared.

But the important thing is that I feel ready to share again, share words about my life with internet people I don’t know.

So here’s to a new beginning.

(Sorry the only thing I’ve got to toast with is a crumbled saltine and a nearly empty waterbottle.)

Why I Travelled to Europe and What I Found Instead

I would like to say that I went to Europe because I wanted to see the world and experience different cultures, but quite frankly, that would be a lie.

Sure, those two reasons factored into my decision to go, but as embarrassing as it is to admit, I really went because I was bored and frustrated. I just desperately, desperately wanted out. I was about to turn nineteen, and some part of me felt like I had never done anything exciting in my entire life–I had never had a true adventure. I suddenly had this insatiable need for excitement that couldn’t fulfilled at home.

So I lied and gave the usual list of reasons for travel to anyone who asked why, and it worked. Cecelia was up for going–we had been talking about going to Europe together since we were fourteen–and my parents and doctors gave me the go ahead. The two of us purchased tickets, and I was caught up in a whirlwind of preparation as we rushed to pull everything together.

And you know what? I didn’t find that excitement in Europe. Not at all. I was surrounded by amazing museums, monuments, restaurants, shops, buildings, and parks; I was with my best friend doing the things we had dreamed about doing for years; I was of more than legal age everywhere we went; and there were no adults to tell me what to do and when to do it; but I still found myself bound with the same weird feeling of boredom. I could feel myself still screaming, “I WANT OUT! LET ME OUT! I AM HERE IN THE PLACE THAT IS SUPPOSED TO BE LIBERATING AND NOTHING IS HAPPENING!! PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, JUST LET ME OUT!”

And it wasn’t until I was sitting on the Tube on our last night in London that I realized that I didn’t know what “out” was and what was holding me back from getting it. I was vigorously straining to free myself from these mysterious shackles in London as much as I was at home. Some part of me felt like I needed to do something bigger, that really proved that I rapidly approaching the end of my second decade, so I dragged Cecelia to a pub one night where I drank a glass of terrible lemonade and Cecelia ate a salad. But even that wasn’t enough, and I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my morals to do anything further like ordering a proper drink. So I left London, happy with my experiences there, but still hopelessly trapped.

Then, one evening in Paris, after being embarrassingly and unjustly nasty to Cecelia following an unfortunate Metro experience, I figured out what it was: I could run away from environments all I liked, but I couldn’t run away from my own head and my self-imposed repression.

I have a list of rules a mile long, and I am insanely strict about following them. I don’t curse, and my eyes will actually skip over those words while I’m reading so that I will not say them in my head. I won’t knowingly eat food that has alcohol in it, even if it has “cooked off.” I don’t wear skirts or dresses without bike shorts on the off chance that my underwear might show. If I can’t see at least one rib without sucking in, I drastically cut back on food. I pinch myself whenever I take the Lord’s name in vain (which I do far too often), and I will just leave or pretend I don’t know them if I think the people I’m with are acting inappropriately. And the list goes on. In short, I can be a horrible, horrible prig.

I also can’t escape how mental illness has affected my life. I can’t change that I spent a majority of my Junior and Senior years of high school missing out on numerous social and academic activities because I was in and out of treatment facilities and heavily medicated. Those feelings of alienation and loneliness are going to take a long time to fade, and I don’t think that I will ever fully be freed from mental illness–I’ll only ever be able to cope better.

And what happened then continues to affect me now. This past year has been spent hanging out in a waiting room before leaving for college. It was all about coming up with productive ways to fill my time or things that numbed the shame of being left behind again. Everyone else was doing wonderful, exciting things, living on their own, being independent, and learning while I was tapping away on my computer, grading book summaries, and reading so much that I would end each day seeing double.

They came back home matured and confident, with stories of their adventures, and all I had to contribute was “so I went to this book event in the city about a book you’ve never heard of by an author whom you have probably only ever heard me mention, but believe me, it was really good.”

My life was dull and greyed compared to theirs, and I felt so abandoned and embarrassed to be unable to relate. And more than all of that, I was perpetually aware that if I didn’t find some way to prove myself in this waiting room, I was only going to be stuck in there longer. I spent a lot of time lying about how wonderful it was to take a gap year, and each fake smile and untruth made me feel even more ashamed.

Europe, no matter how wonderful, isn’t going to get me away from being unreasonably self-repressed or ashamed. That can’t be purchased on High Street in London or found below The Eiffel Tower. Even the middle of Lac Léman isn’t going to have the answer. The solution comes from within and being able to forgive and liberate myself, and gaining the ability to do that is going to be a lifelong process.

On the plane ride home, during hour three of eight, I started to think about whether the trip had been a failure in that regard, whether I was returning with the same amount of self-hatred I had before I left, and whether I should have waited to go. Was it a mistake to have gone seeking something I could have found at home?

But after a little more reflection and accidentally dumping a cup of soda in my lap, I realized that the trip had been a success in so many other regards.

Maybe I was still quite ashamed of myself, but I had climbed to the top of Le Arc de Triomphe, even though I am monstrously afraid of heights;

Ah, the weird facial expressions of someone who feels both victorious and like they are going to faint.

I ate three meals a day for nearly two weeks, something I haven’t done since I was thirteen;

I didn’t regurgitate any of the food I put in my mouth;

I only took two real breaks due to anxiety;

Feeling faint and checking my pulse halfway up Le Arc de Triomphe. It was absurdly high, and I nearly cried, but I did not hyperventilate and got to the top.

I only cried from unhappiness once;

While I don’t actually have a picture of me in tears–Cecelia is far to nice to ever take a picture of me doing that–I do have a picture from while I was crying. You’ll just have to imagine me into it–mental photoshop, if you will.

and –though I’ll let Cecelia be the real judge of this–I don’t think that I was quite as priggish as I normally am in stressful situations.

My self-imposed rules didn’t vanish like I hoped, but I learned that I can be braver and take bigger emotional risks than I truly though possible. I got to spend loads and loads of time with my best friend, and I had a monstrous amount of fun exploring London and Paris, my two favorite cities, visiting the Geneva area for the first time, and meeting Cecelia’s French family. I spoke French and managed not to make any embarrassing mistakes. I got to go shopping at my favorite at my favorite British and French stores, and I saw some amazing museum exhibits. And even though this wasn’t the first time I’ve travelled by myself, or even travelled to Europe alone, I feel like I truly proved that I can be an independent adult.

In the end, I got the things I had lied about seeking, seeing the world and experiencing different cultures, and didn’t get the thing, that “out,” I was actually searching for.

And you know what?

I am totally okay with that.

In fact, I am glad that it turned out this way.

Elementary School Potato Chips

As erroneous as it may be, in my head hearing, “Ella, you need to gain weight” is synonymous “Ella, please start eating lots of organic junk food.” So in yet another attempt to gain back the weight I lost in Europe, I sat down with a bag of Route 11 Barbecue Potato Chips this afternoon.

As a child in D.C. Route 11 Potato Chips were my favorite. But the company is fairly regional, and it’s rare to see them very far outside of the Shenandoah Valley area. In fact, I don’t think I’ve had them for upwards of five years. But when I went to West Virginia a few weeks ago, I snagged several bags at a deli to eat when I returned home.

Route 11 Potato Chips were once a elementary lunchtime staple, broken into small shards in a plastic bag that inevitably ended up smushed at the bottom of my brown bag lunch. I preferred them to cookies or sweets, and everyday in the cafeteria I would very carefully save them for last. I once even managed to get my parents to take me to the factory where we could buy their “exclusive” flavors like fried chicken and watch the workers toss the potato slices into the fryers. Needless to say, this afternoon I was very excited to eat the chips.

So at around two when I was ready for a treat to distract me from the endless headache of trying to submit college forms, I grabbed a bag and sat back down in front of the computer to snack on them as I worked.

In retrospect, I suppose that I should have known that I would end up crying. And sadly, it wasn’t that nostalgic now-those-were-the-days crying.

The moment I put the first chip in my mouth, I felt like I was eight-years-old again and absolutely miserable. Those chips tasted like the bullying and isolation of my elementary school years. They tasted like loneliness and desperation, like purposely slicing my thumb on a can so that I could go to the nurses office rather than spend twenty minutes sitting at a sticky table and staring at my Route 11 potato chips and a dry PB&J sandwich on whole grain bread while I got kicked in the shins and mocked. They tasted like hiding in the stairwell to avoid going back to class, like being disliked by nearly every one of my teachers, like sitting for hours in the nurse’s office because I got kicked out of the classroom for the second time that day.

Each bite tasted of the misery I have worked so hard to bury underneath my happy memories of playing with my neighbors. Lee, Zach, Joseph, Pippa, and Beth took that pain away every afternoon and weekend, and I try to focus on the hijinks I got up to with them instead of school. It works most of the time, too. If I box it away tightly enough, it’s almost as if it never happened. I’m determined that my childhood is going to be thought of as happy.

But the chips uncovered the pain–made it a reality again–and all I wanted to do was throw up. I wanted to have to kneel in front of the toilet, holding my hair back, and retch until the chips were all gone, and I could forget about the pain again. Just make it go away.

However, I made a promise to myself recently to be more brave, to do the things that are painful and scare me without flinching or backing down, so I finished that bag of chips. I ate every last bite of that sorrow, and I forced myself not to cry.

I rolled up the empty bag to throw out when I finished my forms, stuffed it out of sight behind the monitor, and got back to work. It was time to move on. I’m not in elementary school anymore, and I’m not going to let myself wallow in the past, no matter how acute those sensory memories can be. I’ve got strong mental duct tape to seal back up that unhappy memories box, and a new vow to never eat Route 11 Barbecue Potato Chips again. It’s going to be okay, I thought, Everything is going to be okay.

Pushkin’s Obscure Language

Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin, tamed squirrel, wild rabbit, my little half-feral cat. I call you little one, baby, honey, words I save only for you. I bristle at the thought of someone comparing me to an infant or small child and loathe call any human by the same name, but you’re so much like a helpless infant that they slip out, even when I intend to call you by your proper name, the one we chose because your elegant tuxedo markings seemed to fit with your namesake, the great Russian poet.

You’re bigger than you act, a full-grown male, lean and strong, instead of the typical indoor cat padding of fat, but you hide around the house as if perpetually scared of attack, a timid kitten in a house full of dogs. We’re gentle and kind and have been for years, but you still shy away. I hold out my unconditional love on a silver platter and yet you approach it with fear. In a few months, you’ll be five, and you still only accept me with the most tentative expressions of trust.

I’m often reminded of a quote by the real Pushkin,

“I want to understand you, I study your obscure language.”

And I do. I try to make myself as vulnerable as you think I’m scary. I lie back on my bed, perfectly still, arms thrown above my head, wrists crossed, hands limp, neck tilted at an angle so that you will see that I am willing to let you rip out my jugular, and I wait. I wait for you to stop mewing in the hall and come into the room. I let you leap up on the bed without turning to track you with my eyes. And then you stumble around on the duvet, strangely keening as though you are are singing a mourner’s lament. I wait for the moment when you determine that I am harmless enough and start to sniff at my cheek, your cold, wet nose sometimes brushing against my skin.

And then you do what I’ve been waiting for. You put your two front paws on my thigh and then begin to inch forward, until you are finally sitting on my stomach, regally upright like an Egyptian cat statue, bobbing on the waves of my breaths.

I open my eyes and say, “Hi, little guy,” and slowly raise my hand to do what you love best. I trace my thumb along the edge of your mouth and scratch the side of your face until you decide that the affection is too much and leap away, off to examine the world underneath the china cabinet or dining room sideboard.

I’ll learn to speak your crying language one day, and we’ll come to the understanding that I mean no harm. You’ve mellowed with age, and maybe your courage will continue to increase, until you curl close to me at night like Zelda Fitzgerald or remain constantly at my side like Maxwell Perkins. I don’t ask you to put aside all of your insecurities for me or to believe that I am wholly without threat, but I hope that you will accept fragments of my love and let me in just a tiny, minuscule bit. I am not as scary as I appear. Really. I promise.

Eleanor Does Europe: Traveling Without Expectations

One of the best things about my trip to Europe was that it was rather spontaneous. Cecelia and I had around a month and a half between deciding to go and actually leaving. I only finished printing the itinerary moments before we left for the airport. I didn’t have time to fantasize about how awesome or scary the trip was going to be. It just happened, and I suddenly found myself eating an early lunch in the garden of Southwark Cathedral and fighting off jet lag. I spent the entire trip living in now, not comparing reality to my expectations, and that was fantastic.

Yes, of course, I didn’t leave home without a very detailed document with addresses, phone numbers, websites, hours, maps, etc. and a rough outline of the places we wanted to visit and the order we planned to do them in, but it was in no way a rigid schedule. I suddenly wanted to go shopping at Top Shop and Cecelia wanted to go exploring in Hyde Park? No problem. Let’s meet at the statue of Prince Albert at seven. The prep work was only there to make life easier and more relaxed. I didn’t have to get anxious about arriving at Le Musée D’Orsay at exactly 15:00 on the 24th because we knew the hours and could just fit it in on another day if we didn’t finish the exhibit.

Our small amount of pre-trip planning worked, we saw a lot, and the trip was unquestionably a success. I got to come home a very proud independent world traveler, antsy after eight hours on an airplane, quite tired, and full of exciting stories to tell my family. There wasn’t any part of me that was upset that something hadn’t happened as I had imagined–because there weren’t any expectations I was trying to fulfill.

Perhaps my recipe for future traveling success is to fantasize less and be more slap-dash and spontaneous. There is a certain magic in just rolling with life rather than trying to force order out something so inherently chaotic. Let’s hope I remember this lesson when I travel again at the end of the month.

Eleanor Does Europe: An Introduction

At the end of May, my best friend, Cecelia, and I travelled to Europe to celebrate the end of her first year at Yale and my nineteenth birthday. It wasn’t the first time we had travelled to Europe or the first time we had travelled together without adults, but it was the first time we’ve ever travelled alone internationally and that made the excitement of going to Europe even more thrilling.

We had an amazing time, and I’m determined to get our experiences down in writing before the memories start to fade at the edges and become tired, memorized stories to be trotted out whenever traveling or Europe is mentioned at the dinner table or thought about in generalizations while staring into space and avoiding reality.

So here is the trip in words and pictures.

Let’s commence.

I’d start at the beginning–posing for a photograph in front of the airport, suitcases in hand, nervous but excited smiles on our faces–but that would be too dull. The details of the check-in counter and how I stored my carry-ons aren’t of any general interest.

Cecelia is on the left, I’m on the right.

So we’ll go in images and moments, the way memories are stored. A little bit about the way I felt on the escalators at Westminster, trying to be blasé and fit in when I actually had no idea where I was supposed to be going, sleeping on Cecelia’s lap on the Eurostar, exhausted, anxious, and happy, or looking up at Notre Dame and thinking, “Hello again, let’s keep up these regular visits because I love you very much.”

For those of you reading this in the archives, here are the links to the posts written about the trip:

Coming Soon

In Which Ella is Jet-Lagged

And…I’m back from Europe.

Today has been spent trying to stay awake until eight p.m. I have one hour to go, and I don’t know if I’ll make it. It is nice, however, to have regular internet access again, and the chance to get back into daily blogging. I’m looking forward to sharing pictures and stories from the trip. Tomorrow, I tell you, tomorrow I’ll begin.

But for now, I’m make myself take another walk around the block before collapsing into my lovely, lovely, absolutely wonderful bed.

Goodnight.

Nothing in This World is Harder Than Speaking the Truth

“Nothing in this world is harder than speaking the truth and nothing is easier than flattery.”

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment

I don’t know about flattery being the easiest thing to say–I’d argue for evasion–but the truth? The truth is near impossible.

Mostly, you just don’t have the nerve to say it. You’re too caught up in fulfilling expectations and becoming your imagined self to risk the vulnerability. Shame and humiliation turn something that was once simple, something possibly understandable, something that ought to be revealed and dealt with into a giant impasse.

And the longer you wait, the easier it becomes to dance around admission. You’re skilled with excuses, white lies, and avoidance. But now it’s snowballed and somehow managed to get even bigger than before. You carry it around with you like an emotional tumor that’s always weighing on you, messing with your thoughts.

If you ever manage to screw your courage to the sticking point and spit it out, maybe because you got tired of the pain or because it was the lesser of two evils, you know the way that the truth catches in your throat, somewhere between your vocal cords and tongue; you know how it’s spoken slowly, haltingly, carefully and then all at once in a deluge of words and fear and shame; you know the scary moment before the other person responds, when you stand naked before them, waiting to see if the world is going to collapse around your feet; and you know the conclusion when the judgement is rendered and you are free to breath in gulps of wonder and relief or be buried under loathing, disappointment, and shame.

The truth can be so painful, like you’re dying while you’re alive, and I think that toying with saying it is the worst sort of emotional sickness to suffer.

In other words, tomorrow is going to be brutish. But I’m ready. Bring it on.

Ella and the Silly/Serious Dialectic

There are times when I feel very much like eighteen, and then there are times where I feel as young as ever. Take this evening for example.

During dinner we chat about the presidential election, children’s book authors, my lunch with Sadie, and British peerage, and my father remarks that he’s very impressed by how much I’ve matured in the past three years. I thank him and feel slightly smug.

However, five minutes later I’m lying on the floor, teasing the cat with a feather, and trying to imitate how a sick dog would whine. Then, the phone rings, and I take off running to answer it, hunched over, making zooming noises, with my arms out like Superman. I almost immediately trip over the edge of the carpet and smack my chin against a chair. It’s Pippa, and I inform her in an overly giddy voice that I have just sent her seven or so links to Downton Abbey stills, along with a link to several interviews with the cast.

Phone call complete, I go back to discussing regional accents and British architecture with my parents until eleven when I decide to go finish reading The New York Times Sunday Magazine and prepare for bed.

It all feels so seamless, like it’s only natural to go from imitating dogs and dangerously running around like Superman to talking about serious topics, when it reality there’s an incredibly sharp deviation in the level of maturity involved. I like the freedom to be goofy and silly without judgement, but I bet that there will come a day where I don’t feel the impulse to do these sorts antics. When that will come I don’t know, but until then I will probably still be making up songs about the things I have to do and pretending to be on a cooking show when I make my lunch.

Eleanor and “French Math”

My mother’s side of the family is French and when I was young, we used to spend my birthday weekend/Memorial Day visiting with them. And while there were many aspects of these trips that I enjoyed, the visits were never very kid-friendly. I usually felt underfoot and like one of the adults was doing me a favor by watching me*. Then, when you factor in all of the adults speaking French and/or (though usually and) about France, relatives I didn’t know, and art/music, it was like being in a constant state of confusion.

And every year, things really came to a head when we went out to dinner on my birthday. It was a big affair that involved fancy clothing (often my arch-nemesis, the pale blue frilly blouse that had a habit of unbuttoning itself every few minutes and the flowered skirt that “I-was-absolutely-under-no-circumstances-to-spill-anything-on”), my very best table manners, and sitting across the table from my 100-year-old great-grandmother who terrified me.

My mother insists that she has never met anyone who has ever lived up to my grandmémé’s standards, and while I understood that it was probably true, I still was determined to be the anomaly. Of course, things never went as planned, and I somehow always managed to mess up and be swatted at within five minutes of sitting down. The swatting would be accompanied by some remark in French that I did not understand, and some adult would whisper in my ear what I supposed to say in response. I would manage to bungle the sentence, the adult would have to apologize for me, and the cycle would continue until I finally gave up on trying to be perfect and got incredibly antsy.

It was on my eighth birthday that my dad introduced me to what he called “French math.”

“Okay, Eleanor, so you know how you have to kiss everyone hello and goodbye? Now, I want you to add up how many kisses that is going to be. Remember Mémé, Grandmémé, and your great aunts each get four, and everyone else gets two.”

I’d work out the sum in my head, and then my dad would change it up so that I had to come up with the number of kisses for the people with blue eyes or everyone wearing black. Eventually, this turned into me making up my own rules for calculating kisses, and I’ve done it during every long family dinner since.

So the next time you find yourself stuck in a room full of French people you are going to have to kiss, you can pull out this trick and go wild.

Note: You can adopt it for hugs when you’re not with the French, but the level of difficulty and fun vastly decreases, so I’d suggest that you instead spend your time changing the lyrics of Yankee Doodle or plotting escape routes in case of an attack.

*Or often not watching, with the case in point being the time I nearly drowned in the pool when I was five because all of the adults thought someone else had an eye on me.